Friday, October 27, 2006

 

The Avengers – Silent Dust

If you’re still up at 11.30, The Avengers is on BBC4. Tonight’s episode is unusual if not quite thrilling; a rather violent, bitter ecological fable in which Steed and Emma seem curiously out of place. Unusually, then, it’s not the best thing on this week. Torchwood’s smashed ratings records (by BBC3 standards) for its opening episodes, an impressively noirish set-up story wrapped up in a bit of a hurry and an Angel-ish sexfest with a rather slight plot, while Robin Hood’s third episode was far better written and characterised than its first couple of bits of laddish but brainless entertainment. Richard also popped on the very last episode of The West Wing for us on DVD yesterday, in a transparent and largely successful attempt to get me to blub on our twelfth anniversary. Awwhh. He’s reviewed the other two on Millennium Dome’s blog, of course, and though I’d love to, my arm’s still too painful to do much typing (hospital appointment coming up in a month. Sigh). So I’ve been storing up quite a lot of articles in my head, which may or may not ever be written, and I’ve been writing this Avengers piece in very tiny instalments over a few days…
Steed watches birds – Emma goes hunting
Steed and Mrs Peel are called in this week to investigate the mysterious disappearance of all the birds in a beautiful country spot – believed to be the harbinger of all-killing fertiliser gone wrong, ‘Silent Dust’. They’re first seen on the lake, Steed reclining while Emma punts, and looking particularly relaxed. Perhaps it’s the rosé he’s got dangling in the water. It’s a gorgeous little scene, including Steed’s pained “Don’t look” to Emma as he watches a birdwatcher and she turns in a terribly obvious way, and sets up some smashing looks for the two leads this episode: Steed’s outfits include a blazer and boater as well as that old-fashioned hunting outfit that makes him look especially dapper, and Patrick Macnee gets the chance to play light, hearty and steely, as well as show off his horse-riding; Mrs Peel’s seen in a beret, a rather fetching and highly patterned jacket, apparently nothing (topless for sculpting, though it turns out she’s got a curtain on) and even a moustache. At one point, Steed gets shot and then caught in a mantrap, and crawls off to lose consciousness – Emma picks the buckshot out of him, and the grimness of this scene is alleviated by his Wild West hallucination of her as an old frontier doctor (hence her ’tache). It’s quite the best thing in it, but does point up the main problem with the episode, which is that the rest of the story just doesn’t fit into the Avengers format, so our heroes have to stand out as bizarrely fantasy next to a peculiarly grim set of villains.

The story’s main drive is an eco-parable about an industrial fertiliser gone horribly wrong, probably (like the Doctor Who story Planet of Giants a year earlier) inspired by Silent Spring, with a dash of anti-hunting protest. Stapled to it is a blackmail plot in which a Bondian villain threatens to turn Dorset to wasteland with the deadly fertiliser unless the government pays £40 million. For no readily apparent reason, he’s allied himself to the locals, who make up surely the most bitter village in Britain; from the orphaned daughter of the fertiliser’s heartbroken pariah of an inventor, to the rose-grower done out of the riches his strain earns, to the local horsey heiress whose family lost all their money, they’ve all stepped out of a Play For Today about the bitterness of ‘cheated’ lives. It doesn’t sound like it all pulls together, and indeed it doesn’t, but there are some striking images along the way – dead birds dropping, a dead body in the apples, and of course Steed’s hallucination. It’s just a shame that the beautifully shot climax, in which Mrs Peel is (inevitably) hunted by the villains to jolly music, goes on for a whole eleven minutes and has her being whipped distressingly by a sadist who’s simply nasty. It rather draws attention to how much space there is to fill, and how inappropriate our cheery heroes are to this morbid melodrama. It’s a little like several of the more tedious episodes of the original Star Trek, in which long action sequences keep dropping in because the script’s running short, and Steed chases off the unpleasant sadist with – oh, the subtle irony – a ‘DOWN WITH VIOLENCE’ placard dropped by one of the milling anti-hunt protesters. With all this running around instead of the usual quick exchanges of wit, the pace at times is extraordinarily slow.

The only scenes that really seem like The Avengers are when our heroes visit the company that manufactured then hastily abandoned Silent Dust (asking for trouble, a brand name like that) and exchange camp snippets of dialogue with middle-aged middle-managers about the smell of fertilisers. No, that’s a little unfair; there are some other good lines, particularly with the horsey woman (Joanna Wake) who flirts with Steed and, like many of the cast, is excellent. At one point she tells Steed her horse won’t leave the trough, and he cracks back:
“Oh, dear! I once had an auntie like that.”
Other familiar and impressive faces include William Franklyn, Jack Watson, Norman Bird, Charles Lloyd Pack and Aubrey Morris. On the other hand, ‘Mellors’ the gamekeeper is such a feeble single entendre that Steed has to bring it up in a fourth wall way (while the ruined wilderness of ‘Manderley’ appears to be an entirely random literary reference). Amongst all the earnest environmentalism and the angst we do get those old Avengers themes of modernity vs old-fashioned country ways, in which neither wins; Silent Dust is evidently not progress to the good, but when the villain practically salivates as he tells Mrs Peel about the hunt, you know he’ll be blowing the horn after a human before the episode is out. The series always seemed to love the iconography of hunting, but still seemed to carry an anti-hunting message before its time whenever it came up.

Observant readers may have spotted that I’ve skipped over last week’s episode, the marvellous Too Many Christmas Trees. That’s one of the best they ever did, and I aim to return to it at length when typing is less of a painful chore (it’s possible my arm is encouraging me to be more crabby about the current episode than strictly necessary; it’s not so much bad as uneven, with most of the bits good but few gelling). It’s only BBC4’s fault that the Christmas one was unseasonal, rather than The Avengers setting out its decorations as early as every supermarket, by the way; it was originally broadcast on Christmas Day 1965, while this following episode went out on New Year’s Day. Too Many Christmas Trees was rather barbed for the season, but at least it was seasonal and, despite all the death and horror, perfectly crafted, crackling with wit and hugely entertaining. Silent Dust, on the other hand, is mostly shot out-of-doors and appears to be set at the very least in spring; the nearest to a ‘seasonal’ flavour comes from the far from picture-postcard hunt, and there’s a very sour flavour throughout. Perhaps it was intended to reflect the audience’s hangovers?

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Comments:
I wish I had BBC4 so I could catch some of those episodes of "The Avengers" - great show and the Emma Peel episodes were the best.

Incidentally I've enjoyed reading all your Dr Who comments / posts, Alex - my goodness, I thought I was obsessive! You are a mine of information! Being a rather apolitical creature, I haven't written about the show in quite the same way as you. But like yourself, I've got a real passion for the programme. My Brazilian husband is less enamoured with it (can't imagine why!) What did you think of Torchwood?
 
I'll be honest. I feel bad about it since I've met and like the guy who wrote it, but the third Robin Hood still had me wanting to throw things at the screen.

That said, it was still an improvement on what went before and I don't blame Paul for its faults since the main problems I have with the series - the forced allegories and hammered-home "do you understand what we're saying yet and did you get that joke?" dialogue - have been in each episode. All of which makes me think they are being forced on top of each script by powers on high.

I have yet to catch episode four. Since I'm off sick I may use Teleport to watch it later to see what it's like.
 
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